Negotiations resume over Korea-U.S. nuclear pact

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Negotiations resume over Korea-U.S. nuclear pact

Much stalled talks for negotiation to renew the Korea-U.S. nuclear cooperation pact slated to expire in March next year begins today in Washington, resuming for the first time in 14 months.

But concern remains over whether the Gordian Knot can be solved, as Seoul pushes for Washington to lift the contentious restrictions which bar South Korea from reprocessing nuclear fuel and enriching uranium for civilian use.

Washington is hesitant to concede to these demands, as it will go against its nonproliferation “gold standard” in order to prevent a potential trigger of a global nuclear arms race.

The two-day, sixth-round talks of delegations from Seoul and Washington will entail an evaluation of the negotiation process thus far and further discuss on the detailed contents of a draft agreement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated. Park Ro-byug, the foreign ministry’s ambassador for energy, heads the Korean delegation, while the U.S. delegation chief is Robert Einhorn, special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control.

The nuclear energy pact last amended in 1974, also called the “123 Agreement” after pertinent sections in the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954, prohibits Korea from enriching uranium because the process can produce plutonium, which can not only power nuclear reactors but can also be used to make atomic weapons, and from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods from reactors.

Korea, which derives more than a third of its energy from its nuclear reactors, expects to run out of storage space for spent fuel soon.

Korea also proposed developing pyroprocessing technology which enables the reuse of waste but doesn’t produce pure uranium or plutonium that could be used for nuclear weapons.

But the U.S. claims that the plutonium produced through pyroprocessing may be turned into weapons-usable material more easily than stored spent fuel. Due to the reprocessing restrictions, the South has annually spent about 600 billion won ($534 million) on outsourcing enrichment of the U.S. or French-supplied uranium fuel.

“External factors such as the North Korean nuclear test make it difficult for a negotiation that favors South Korea, especially in regards to reprocessing spent fuel,” energy envoy Park told the JoongAng Ilbo.

Seoul and Washington began talks to rewrite the nuclear agreement in 2010 with no progress after five rounds of negotiations, though Secretary of State Kerry said recently after meeting with Yun Byeong-se, foreign affairs minister, in Washington earlier this month he is “very hopeful” for an expedited revision of the bilateral nuclear accord.

If an agreement is not drawn before the nuclear pact expires next year, Korea might not be able to receive nuclear technology and resources from the U.S.

“Realistically, the situation is difficult, so there are talks of extending the agreement for two years,” said Hwang Ji-hwan, international relations professor at the University of Seoul.


By Sarah Kim, Chang Se-jeong [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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